Brexit pushed UK to ‘sleepwalk to disaster’

Distracted: Boris Johnson on the day of a Cobra meeting about the virus in January. © Getty

Did Brexit undermine Britain’s virus response? A report in the Sunday Times claims to show an exhausted government with its eye off the ball in the key weeks when decisive action was needed.

31 January was meant to be Brexit day.

For years, the political discourse in the UK had been reduced to a single debate about leaving the European Union. A month after Boris Johnson’s resounding election victory, Brexit was done.

But behind the scenes, a great threat was rearing its head.

Yesterday, the Sunday Times published a harrowing report, listing all of the government’s mistakes in the lead up to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the eve of Brexit day, the WHO declared the coronavirus a global emergency. Many UK scientists had already warned of the potential danger that lay ahead.

Members of a government advisory group regularly joked about how they were not prepared for an outbreak.

Though a pandemic is still officially listed as the main threat to the nation, other priorities like terrorism and Brexit had taken centre stage. Years of austerity and spending cuts had stripped away vital resources.

Most damning of all was the Downing Street insider who said that Boris “didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be”.

As Covid-19 spread across the UK, none of the pandemic plans were put into place. Boris took regular breaks, attending to issues in his private life. Aides were told to “keep their briefing papers short”.

Is if fair to conclude that Brexit undermined Britain’s virus response?

Delayed reaction

Yes. the government appeared over-confident and complacent at the start of the outbreak. By focusing on a single issue for the last four years, the Conservatives have proven thoroughly unprepared for the first real task of national leadership.

No. Though the government was slow to respond to the outbreak, it never went against its scientific advisers. It is always easy to cast the blame in hindsight.

You Decide

  1. Humans are not designed to prepare for things in advance – but to react quickly once they have happened. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Using the Expert Links, have a look at the front pages of the newspapers today. Write down the three headlines that you think Boris Johnson would find most challenging this morning.

Some People Say...

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

HG Wells (1866-1946), English writer famed for War of the Worlds

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is known that, despite the media running stories about the outbreak as early as January, few in the UK were expecting this exact course of events. Even when a disaster is just around the corner, it is easier to imagine that things will stay the same. Psychologists call this “normalcy bias” or “negative panic”.
What do we not know?
Many debate whether recent political events, like Brexit, necessarily affected the UK government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. And we do not know if a different leader would have done any better. Also, comparing the responses of different countries to an unknown virus is an ‘imperfect science’ (inaccurate).

Word Watch

Discourse
A verbal exchange of ideas; a conversation.
Resounding
Unmistakable; enormous.
Harrowing
Worrying or distressing. The word comes from the harrow, which is a farming tool used to break the earth.
WHO
World Health Organisation, an international group founded by the UN to give advice and assistance during medical health crises. Donald Trump recently announced that the US would stop funding it because of its supposed pro-China bias.
Austerity
A word derived from austere which means strict. It is used to refer to the years following the 2009 financial crisis when the Conservative government severely cut spending on public services in an attempt to reduce debt.
Complacent
Smug; self-satisfied about one’s achievements.
Hindsight
Understanding of a situation or event only after it has happened.

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